Category Archives: Austria-Hungary

3 DECEMBER, 1914: Disastrous Victories

The Battle of the Kolubara River began a hundred years ago today, a six-day carnage in northern Serbia that ended the third and final Austro-Hungarian invasion of the country in 1914. So let’s talk about Serbia and its war to date.

Serbia was yet another of Europe’s new countries, having gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Its twentieth-century character had been defined by a coup d’état in 1903, when King Alexander was assassinated and the Karadjordjevic dynasty, in the person of King Peter I, was installed in its place. The King ruled through an appointed cabinet that answered to a National Assembly (Skuptshina) directly elected by all male taxpayers and dominated by moderate liberals.

The regime’s home policies broadly reflected this political preference but its foreign policy, heavily influenced by the military, was aggressively expansionist and committed to the establishment of a pan-Slav state. In practical terms this meant seeking access to the Adriatic through Albania, and control over the rest of what would one day be Yugoslavia through absorption or federation. Tiny, independent Montenegro aside, all these places were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman Empires in 1914, and this fact alone pretty much guaranteed diplomatic support for Serbia from Russia.

Russian support had been crucial to Serbian success in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. While St. Petersburg’s guarantees kept other European powers from intervening, Serbia almost doubled it size and raised its population to around 4.5 million. You couldn’t call these secure or stable gains, given that the entire region – including Bulgaria, Greece and Rumania – was soon gearing up for another territorial merry-go-round, but Serbia made an alliance with Greece to counterbalance the threat of Bulgarian dissatisfaction with the 1913 peace, and went right on trying to expand.

A nice, simple regional map of the  Balkan mess in 1914.
A nice, simple regional map of the Balkan mess in 1914.

Belgrade had been encouraging pan-Slav separatist movements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia since 1903. Both were semi-autonomous states within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the latter seized full control of Bosnia in 1908, after which rising tension between Vienna and Belgrade found red hot focus in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. By June 1914 Sarajevo was ready to blow, and the assassination of visiting Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, an act so famous you don’t need me to describe it, lit the touch paper.  Some controversy still hangs around the question of whether or not the Serbian government planned the killing. It didn’t, as evidenced by its desperate attempt to stave off war in answering Vienna’s subsequent ultimatum, but the Black Hand did.

The Black Hand was a hard-line nationalist organisation with strong military links and fingers in every other important Serbian pie, essentially a state within a state. It had engineered a political crisis that forced King Peter to pass executive power to his son, Alexander, on 14 June, and an election to legitimise the change was underway when the Archduke died. The killing was in line with Black Hand ambitions to goad Vienna into an aggressive act that would bring Russia to war, allowing Serbia to profit from a wider conflict’s fallout, and this pragmatic policy reflected the basic fact that Serbia couldn’t hope to win a war against an industrial power.

An overwhelmingly rural society, landlocked and essentially tribal in its outlying regions, Serbia possessed few mineral or other industrial resources.  A mere 10,000 Serbs were engaged in industrial manufacture, almost all of them in Belgrade (itself a primitive backwater compared to major European capitals), and the economy was largely dependent on exports of food and hides to Germany, Austria and Turkey. All Serbia’s fuel, arms and other military necessities were imported overland, using the navigable Danube, poor roads or the country’s only two railway lines, which linked Belgrade with Sofia and Constantinople. Meanwhile its army could muster a maximum of some 350,000 men, most of them ill equipped and overage, and was hardly the instrument to fulfil the leadership’s grandiose ambitions.

So Serbia was relying on outside help, and despite the government’s initial fears the Black Hand felt pretty confident about getting it . Meanwhile the Serbian population, fuelled by years of racially based propaganda (as were Austrians on the other side of the frontier), rushed to battle with the same confident enthusiasm displayed in Berlin, London and Paris when war came at the end of July.  Disaster beckoned.

Help didn’t arrive. As the diplomatic dominoes crumbled and massed armies collided all over Europe, none of Serbia’s allies against the Central Powers could spare the resources to provide significant support, and Serbia (along with Montenegro) was forced to face Austro-Hungarian invasion alone. What followed was a brilliant series of defensive campaigns, under the skilled command of General Putnik and carried out by troops familiar with the mountainous terrain.

By the time he launched a counterattack against Austrian positions at the Kolubara, Putnik had repelled two ineptly executed invasions in August and September, and made a tactical retreat before a third in November, giving up Belgrade to enemy occupation on 2 December.   The counterattack struck at fatigued troops, and after two days of heavy fighting Austrian forces began retreating back towards the frontier. Serbian forces recaptured the nearby town of Valyevo on 6 December, and the invaders re-crossed the frontier at the Drina three days later, at which point Putnik’s exhausted army gave up the pursuit.

Serbian troops crossing the Kolubara River. It took a while.

The third invasion had cost the Austrians more than 225,000 troops, but the drain on victorious Serbian forces was more significant. The country had acted as a nation in arms, sparking reprisals by Austrian occupiers no less gruesome than those inflicted on Belgium by occupying German armies, and losses of some 180,000 men during the year could not be replaced. Still denied any material support by the Allies (although Britain did provide money for the purchase of supplies), the battered, exhausted rump of the Serbian Army could only spend the winter huddled in its fastnesses, desperately short of food, medicines and all other military necessities, while typhus spread through the ranks.

Driven by soaring ambition at the heart of its body politic, Serbia had gambled on war and lost, but seemed to have got away with it at the end of 1914. The year to come would bring a terrible reckoning.

11 SEPTEMBER 1914:  Bad Day for the Bad Guy

These were momentous times on the Western Front a century ago, and there’s no denying that events in France and Belgium were the War’s big stories in mid-September.  The Marne was ending and military focus shifting to the River Aisne as Allied and German forces sought to outflank each other, but Poppycock knows you can get all you need elsewhere about the Battle of the Aisne and the series of similarly inconclusive actions that followed.  Instead, let’s talk about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which officially called off its invasion of Russia on 11 September, and about the man responsible for Vienna’s spectacularly creaky war machine.

Franz, Count Conrad von Hötzendorf, generally known as Conrad, became the Austro-Hungarian Army’s chief of staff and effective commander in 1906.  Apart from a hiatus in 1911–12, he held the job until 1917.  Like any historical event great or small, the First World War emerged from a swathe of interconnected dynamics and circumstances, and no single person or cause can be held responsible for its outbreak – but if you were looking for a single bad guy to blame for the catastrophic collapse of European diplomacy, then Conrad might be your man.

The hawkish epitome of pre-War European militarism, Conrad was convinced that aggressive expansion was the cure for his multiracial Empire’s economic problems and mounting internal tensions.  For years he had argued strongly but in vain for surprise attacks on disputed territories in Italy and Russia, and he was responsible for Vienna’s aggressive response to the Serbian crisis of 1914.  He did everything in his power to ensure Germany’s support for the Austrian invasion across the Danube that followed, and when general war broke out he launched a second invasion, across the Empire’s eastern frontier into Russian Galicia.

Conrad was also a military optimist to the point of fantasy, and as such a byword for folly among contemporary commanders.  He had been responsible for some modernisation of the Army, particularly its antiquated artillery arm, but it was still largely dependent on obsolete equipment, guided by outdated tactics and hamstrung by tensions (and language barriers) between its component nationalities.  Conrad nevertheless expected this Army to knock out Serbia at a stroke, redeploy a thousand kilometres to the northeast and invade Galicia before the Russians were ready.

In fact, Serbia held firm against tactically naive Austrian attacks in August, while Russia took nothing like the expected six weeks to bring troops to the front.  Conrad reacted by halting reinforcements en route for Serbia and sending them to Galicia instead, an idea based on a fantastically optimistic view of the Imperial railway system, which was largely single-tracked and collapsed into utter chaos trying to turn all the trains around.

With half the invasion force and much of its equipment stranded on the railways, and available units still in the process of basic organisation, Conrad launched the attack into Galicia anyway.  Committed to offensives at every opportunity but never remotely fit to carry them out, the invasion quickly disintegrated in the face of Russian counter-pressure and had been driven back into the Carpathian Mountains by the time Conrad called an official halt on 11 September.

Meanwhile, Austro-Hungarian forces in the south were launching a second invasion of Serbia, but simple frontal attacks on strong defensive positions met the same fate as before, this time at the River Drina.  That invasion was suspended on 15 September, leaving Conrad’s grand scheme in tatters and Vienna saddled with expensive, dangerous stalemate on two fronts.

Close to the royal family and with no credible rival among an anaemic officer corps, Conrad held onto his job and went right on launching his troops into hopelessly optimistic offensives against Russia, Serbia and Italy for the next two years, sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives in pursuit of a crushing, decisive victory that never came.  His influence waned in the second half of 1916 as Austro-Hungarian command effectively passed under German control, and the new emperor, Karl, eventually dismissed him in March 1917.

The importance of Austria-Hungary in 1914 is largely overlooked by heritage commemoration, not least because the Empire had ceased to exist by the time the War ended and escaped the contemporary bad press heaped upon Germany.  This tends to let Conrad off posterity’s hook, but amid all the exposure of Prussian militarism his disastrous contributions to the bloodletting shouldn’t be forgotten.  While the British leadership went reluctantly into battle, the French righteously and the Russian blindly, while even the Kaiser abandoned peace with dread in his heart, Conrad’s Austria-Hungary marched greedily to war and sought advantage in its extension across Europe.

 

17 AUGUST, 1914:  Eastern Front (part one)

A hundred years ago today, German and Russian forces fought the first engagement of the War on the Eastern Front.  The fight took place at Stallupönen, a German village near the frontier between the two empires.  It wasn’t much of a battle, an unauthorised attack by a small portion of the regionally-based German army against the southern flank of an invading Russian army that forced a division (about 10,000 men) of Russian troops to retreat and took some 3,000 prisoners – but it was the start of a long and vastly important campaign that changed the world, changed the War and is almost completely forgotten by the heritage version as seen from the West.

I’ll be checking into the Eastern Front on a regular basis during the next few years, but for now here’s the start-up picture of a theatre of war that raged for more than four years and ultimately stretched all the way from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Given that an alliance dating back to 1892 committed Russia to fighting in support of France, and that Germany was tied to Austria-Hungary by defensive alliance, a glance at a basic map of Europe in 1914 makes the opening battle lines fairly clear.  I’ve pinched the one below from the net, and I’ll be glad to remove it if anyone minds.

Europe1914

The Russian and German Empires faced each other along the borders of East Prussia to the north.  Austria-Hungary lined up along a disputed frontier with Russia further south, across the then Russian (now Ukrainian) province of Galicia, and all three empires were clustered hungrily round Poland, then ruled by Russia as a semi-autonomous and very turbulent province.  Still further south, the independent kingdoms of Romania and Bulgaria remained neutral for now, but both were looking to expand and both would enter the fighting once they’d juggled inducements from both sides and decided which represented the man chance.

All three main protagonists had plans in place for the outbreak of war.  Germany had left an army on its eastern frontier as part of the wider Schlieffen Plan, expecting to have beaten France and sent reinforcements during the anticipated six-week delay while Russian forces got organised.  Austria-Hungary’s battle plan defied both logistical realities (like most plans conjured up in Vienna) and the demands of war against Serbia on its southern frontiers to call for an immediate invasion of Galicia.  The latest of many Russian plans, known as Plan 19, was equally ambitious and smacked of autocratic fantasy.  Originally conceived as a simple, massed attack against the relatively small German force defending East Prussia (the eastern spur of Germany stretching up to what became the Lithuanian border), it was repeatedly doctored to satisfy squabbling court factions until it encompassed a smaller attack on East Prussia, a major attack on Austro-Hungarian lines in Galicia and the maintenance of strongly defended fortresses inside the frontiers.

Nothing went according to plan for any of them.

From a German viewpoint, the big surprise was that two Russian armies invaded East Prussia as early as 15 August.  They didn’t get far, not least because although Russia possessed hordes of troops – perhaps 25 million men of military age to call upon – and had performed miracles to get men to battle so quickly, its retarded industrial condition meant that uniforms and equipment were an altogether different matter.  The preliminary battle at Stallupönen set a pattern of well-equipped and well-trained German forces routing their more numerous opponents, but that didn’t prevent a certain amount of initial panic in Berlin at this unexpectedly early development.  Reinforcements under the newly paired team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff were diverted from the west to meet the situation, a move that had momentous consequences for the Western Front and opened floodgates to a campaign that would absorb more and more German attention and resources during the next four years.  A comprehensive German victory against superior numbers at Tannenberg on 26 August then forced the Russians to fall back and reinforce, bringing the invasion to an end.

Russian attacks in Galicia took longer to get going but met greater success against 10 shambolic Austro-Hungarian forces that were neither up to strength nor ready for operations, but which were carrying out their own planned invasion anyway.  The Austrians won the first skirmish, and forced the Russians back across their frontier when the two armies, each about half a million strong, collided in late August along a line centred on the small (now Ukrainian) town of Komarov.  Austrian optimism, never remotely justified by the performance of its armies in 1914, brought immediate attempts to push further east, but they collapsed against defensive positions and turned into a full-scale retreat, first to the city of Lvov and then into the sanctuary of the Carpathian Mountains.

As autumn began, the Germans were preparing an advance against the Russians in the north while the Russians planned an attack into the Carpathians, but deteriorating weather and the strength of defensive positions brought temporary stalemate to both fronts, and for the rest of the year all three empires focused their campaigns on the cherry in the middle, Poland.

That was just an outline sketch of the opening phase of the War on the Eastern Front.  Much, much more was to come.  For long periods, the Front achieved its own forms of gruesome stagnation, sometimes locked into trench warfare around strong defensive positions, sometimes involving huge advances by either side that moved the lines hundreds of miles across vast wildernesses without inflicting any sort of knockout blow.  Like the Western Front, the Eastern Front would see strategists and field commanders struggling and failing to find ways of making offensive land warfare actually work, and losing millions of lives in the process.

The total numbers killed in the theatre defy accurate calculation – Russian figures were often guesses and Austrian records Beta were lost when its empire collapsed, to name just two of the problems faced by historians – but estimates of military deaths start above three million, and in most of the regions involved nobody bothered counting civilian deaths after about 1915.  Even by the standards we understand from the Western Front, fighting conditions were unspeakably horrible, with whole units freezing to death overnight amid desperate shortages of basic equipment and medicines, especially on the Russian side but also among multiracial Austro-Hungarian forces.

Unlike the Western Front, the War in the east did have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the world at large.  Russian involvement ended with the collapse of the regime to Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution; Austria-Hungary’s unproductive effort drained and eventually helped destroy its empire; Germany filled the void, took control over great swathes of territory, and then propelled its overall war effort towards disaster by attempting to administer them and exploit their economies.  And although a host of newly independent states sprang into existence all across the theatre in the War’s aftermath, many of them still faced prolonged struggles for survival as revolutions and civil wars raged across the region.  One way or another every part of the Eastern Front remained at war until the 1920s.

Even slammed together in a few paragraphs the Eastern Front makes quite a story, worth remembering as a human tragedy in itself and because it gave birth to so much of modern Europe.  You won’t hear much about it from the heritage industries in the West, and that’s a shame, because attempting to tell the story of the First World War without it can only be…

Poppycock.